Lately, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the hyperspecific targeted advertising I receive while using the internet. This ranges from terrifyingly creepy, as in Google ads related to something I just received a message about in my gmail account, to comically incompetent, as in Facebook ads for multilevel marketing schemes that merely include numerous personal details about my life (e.g. “31-year old bald Madison dad who married a far better woman than he deserves nine years ago today and took way too long to complete a terminal degree makes $10,000 in his spare time”).
Amazingly, there’s something still worse than the ever-metastasizing clump of evidence that my personal information and attention are the real products on offer from currently-fashionable internet companies. Here I refer to the completely untargeted ad, as in the regular promotional emails that Borders sends me. I have never purchased a hardcover bestseller from Borders; in recent memory, I think I have exclusively bought technical books, books about photographic lighting, DK Eyewitness Books about robots and knights, and audio recordings of Baroque and Renaissance music. (We’ll construe the latter broadly enough to include DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, which I also bought at a Borders.) Borders knows my purchase history because it is tied to my “Borders Rewards” card, which is the only reason that they have my email address in the first place.
Borders certainly has enough data about me to send me sensible recommendations, or even targeted promotions that I would be likely to exploit. Instead, they drop the same impersonal, coordinated, and clumsy marketing on (I presume) every email address they have. So instead of getting notifications of a new Pragmatic Programmers book or Fretwork album, I get messages from Borders touting the sort of crap I’d never buy: e.g. Dan Brown books, political memoirs, the Twilight series, and Eat Pray Love and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, whatever those are.
Targeted marketing, when done well, has the advantage of being relevant and potentially useful. Advertising that make me weep for my lost privacy is disheartening, but it doesn’t necessarily represent a waste of my time. I can’t say the same, on either count, for lazy, carpet-bombed marketing that reveals that the sender has absolutely not mined my purchases, browsing history, or “friend” network to the extent of its ability. As a concrete example, consider Amazon and Borders. Amazon’s aggressive daily emails encouraging me to buy every product tangentially related to something I looked at yesterday are bad for my wallet (and my soul), but they are at least sometimes interesting. When I see an email from Borders in my inbox, on the other hand, I typically delete it unread.